I cannot think of a more ideal innovation in the Premier League’s consciously uncoupled relationship with football than the winter break. One of my pet theories (there are about 12 of them, covering all human experience) is that football fans detest talking about football. Honestly, anything to get away from it.
They mainly don’t even want to read about it. Tactics, technique, deep analysis – these are niche interests and obsessions, in which most people largely feign vaguely respectful interest because they’re regarded as being a traditional but clearly tangential part of the much larger experience. A bit like the gherkin in a Big Mac. Indeed, many discard them entirely. A very small section of people really do care about those things, of course, which is why there is a very small amount of content among the vast tumult of football content to cater to them. But in the main, people would do anything to avoid this stuff.
By contrast, they – indeed, we – are unable stop talking about what might be termed football-adjacent matters. A huge part of being a football fan in keeping with the times is having well-aired views about things that are not football: people, money, all manner of social media dramas, the antics of a vast firmament of soap opera characters to hate, envy, occasionally even love … you know the sort of matters. The good thing for the content providers, as we now call the clubs, is those things are happening all week long. It’s not just the odd 90-minutes here and there.
Not that there’s anything wrong with all that, you understand. But in this context the winter break is a stroke of absolute genius. It is a break from having to pretend to talk about football, because there is no football – only all the other, more popular football-adjacent stuff. Having said that, there is a small bit of football, it turns out – but that is far better discussed in terms of who might not have been in the dugout for it, as opposed to the actual football itself.
I have hugely enjoyed the lengthy and lively coverage of the winter break kick-off on the various breakfast shows. I concede it might have been so vigorously discussed in part because it is a novelty. But my strong suspicion is that it was mainly embraced so enthusiastically because it freed everyone from even the pretence of having to discuss football.
Certainly the absence of football has been remorselessly covered in all media outlets in the days and even weeks leading up to its temporary hiatus. You cannot move for sensational headlines seeking to put you inside the action of the lack of action. Even the headlines set my pulse racing. “Premier League Winter Break Explained: What You Need to Know.” “Arsenal’s winter break UNCOVERED”. “How does the Premier League’s Winter Break Work?” Well … I want to say that it’s a break? Which happens in winter? But from everything I have managed to glean its mysteries would seem slightly more arcane than those of the Iowa caucus.
Either way, top-flight football increasingly feels like a world in which football is a plot device – what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin. You need it for the story to happen, and to provoke the characters you care about into behaving in certain consumable ways – but in and of itself, it is relatively insignificant in the grand scheme. As Hitchcock explained it once: “The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.” Rather like the FA Cup. In advance of Liverpool’s Tuesday night fourth-round replay against Shrewsbury Town, there must have been at least three times as much chat and three times as many articles about Jürgen Klopp not breaking his winter break to attend it as there were about the game and build-up itself. You could luxuriate in coverage of the row about him not being there, of his pushback against the row, of the technical process via which he might watch the match in absentia and phone in during it, and all the descriptions of how his spirit had permeated the Anfield setup so totally that it would be almost like he was there.
For Manchester United, meanwhile, the winter break offers a chance to beef up off-pitch output, particularly in concert with their many official partners. Admittedly, the current travails of the club’s official football partner are unfortunate – but the break will allow a focus on those United plotlines and content items that are doing much better. Off-pitch drama, for instance, or sponsor relations.
It’s all just a slightly different kind of output in the great football-adjacent universe – like Big Band week on the X Factor, or a camping episode in a popular sitcom. It just means that rather than appearing in content beamed from Old Trafford, this week Fred is appearing in content beamed from the Maldives. Look – here is an Instagram snap of him shooting off a waterslide! Meanwhile, Victor Lindelöf is in Morocco! Other dramas? Rising tensions in the Middle East mean United’s Qatar training camp was cancelled; rising tensions elsewhere mean Ole Gunnar Solskjær must use the time off to solve the fiendish puzzle of how to win more football games.
What a wondrous lot of this stuff there is. If you find yourself at any point wondering whether any of it could technically ever be branded as “football”, please don’t. Just relax. Submit. Let the content wash over you like a rainfall shower by Kohler, the principal bathware partner of Manchester United. Give yourself a break. No – give yourself a WINTER break.